“Our world is ending, but life must go on.”
August and September of 2009 saw the theatrical releases of two films that, although unusual, were similar in interesting ways. They both got their starts as short films made independently by unknown filmmakers. These shorts gained notice as online viral videos. Then, some famous Hollywood bigwigs got involved, helping the unknown filmmakers turn their shorts into huge—yet unconventional—blockbusters. Also, both films have the same number in their title. The first was Neil Blomkamp’s action-packed sci-fi metaphor District 9. The second, the subject of this review, is Shane Acker’s animated apocalypse, simply called 9.
The story begins in a damaged workshop, where a ragdoll with internal electronic components somehow springs to life. The doll, with a number 9 painted on his back, explores his settings, full of destroyed buildings and a browned-out sky. He encounters others like him, numbered 1-8, who are in hiding from a mechanical beast hunting them. A talisman, which 9 has on him, could be the key to discovering who they are and what’s happened, or, if in the hands of the beast, could mean their deaths.
Nine aspects of 9:
1: The spirit of invention
The word “steampunk” is in serious danger of becoming grossly overused, as many have used it to describe 9. In terms of story, 9 is more like “electrician-punk.” (Look at me try to create a catchphrase!) I believe the steampunk descriptor applies to how the characters, both hero and villain, are constantly tinkering, building devices and contraptions out of whatever happens to be strewn around. All the machines and doohickeys in the movie have that bronzed, clunky-yet-functional look that steampunk enthusiasts enjoy.
2: Visual storytelling
One of the most refreshing things about 9 is how much of the story is told through the visuals. Scenes with dialogue exposition are few and brief, with the most of the backstory, setting and character motivation told visually. We get the tale of how 9’s world got so messed up through the eyes of 9 and the others as they go exploring. A torn poster here, a destroyed statue there, and we the viewers get a sense of what’s happening. It’s immersion storytelling, in that we are dropped right into the middle of the story with little context, and figure things out along the way, as opposed to having the entire plot spoonfed at us at once. It’s a risky move, but in this case it works, as viewers explore this unfamiliar terrain along with the characters.
3: Hope versus science
During the film, 9 and 1 are often at odds with one another. As the group’s leader, 1 believes in survival over all else, even if that means locking themselves away inside their sanctuary and never venturing outside. The other side of the argument, represented by 9, is that the outside world contains the answers they need to put an end to the danger. 9 is all about curiosity, wanting to explore and tinker. This gets him and the others in trouble early on, but it’s also something that needs to happen in order to relieve the fears they all live with. 9’s argument is one of faith, as he always jumps into the unknown, knowing in his heart (or whatever his equivalent is) that it’s the right thing to do, despite the potential danger.
4: Distinct characters
None of the above would work if it weren’t for the characters being as distinct as they are. With their big eyes, pear-shaped bodies, and floppy cloud feet, the main cast has a classical cartoony look, but it doesn’t take long before you get a sense of who each one is. First, each of the nine main characters has a few visual distinctions, so you never lose track of who is who. Some have different colors, and some have other ticks, such as patches, stitches, or improvised pieces of clothing. The result is that each one is his or her own character, while still clearly the same type of creature, created from the same source. The voice acting helps as well, with Elijah Wood (Sin City), Jennifer Connolly (The Rocketeer), Martin Landau (Ed Wood), and Christopher Plummer (Up) and Crispin Glover (Back to the Future) among the cast. Wood is fairly recognizable at first, but, like the rest of the actors, he quickly disappears into the character.
5: The little details
As noted above, the details are what really make the movie stand out. The characters look remarkably textured, and you can make out all the various stitches and knitting that make up their “skin.” Their eyes are made of little camera lenses, with their widening and closing done in little irises. It’s a cool little touch that makes them expressive while still looking constructed by hand. This attitude extends to the many made-on-the-fly inventions crafted by our heroes, and especially to the backgrounds. The demolished cityscape is actually kind of beautiful, in a dark way. There are a lot of oranges and browns in the colors, representing the lifeless desolation all around the characters, and yet the animators really push these colors, along with many shadows and natural-looking lighting to craft a film that looks much more “painterly” than it is CGI.
6: Everybody loves killer robots
Among all my talk about visuals, story, and theme, let’s not forget that at the most basic level, 9 entertains. Every time one of the evil machines comes after our heroes, it’s a great action scene. There’s more giant-monster-versus-hapless-survivors action in this movie than there is in half a dozen Cloverfields. The monster designs are varied, as are the settings of each attack, so that the movie never feels repetitive.
7: The new breed of filmmaker
Just as Peter Jackson stepped in to bring District 9 to live, directors Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow) and Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted) helped bring 9 to the screen. It’s fitting that another of the themes of 9 is the end of the old ways and the start of a new life, because behind the scenes, there’s a sense of the so-called establishment welcoming a new voice into the fold, and letting this first-time feature director tell the story he wants to tell. Hopefully, Acker will continue to produce his own work in the future, and not get sucked into the usual Hollywood morass of remakes, adaptations and sequels.
The tech specs on this DVD are stunning. The colors and textures jump right off the screen. I especially like the escape from the factory, during which there’s a shot of the characters running for safety while a giant red flag rises behind them, and the color and clarity of it on screen is breathtaking. The sound also impresses. There are quite a few stretches of movie with no dialogue, with only the action on screen moving the story forward, and during these scenes, the sound really stands out, with a lot of atmospheric effects coming out of all the speakers, furthering the immersive feel.
The bonus content kicks off with Acker, animation director Joe Ksander, editor Nick Kenway and “head of story” (?) Ryan O’Loughlin. The group discusses all the work that went into the film, as well as hints about the “bigger picture” of the story not immediately evident. The three featurettes are highly self-congratulatory, with everyone praising everyone else for being so great to work with, but there’s some interesting discussion about how 9 made the transition from 10-minute short to feature film. Speaking of which, the original short is here as well, so you can see how it all began. It too has a commentary, in which Acker and the others talk about its creation and ideas that eventually made it into the longer film.
When I first saw 9 in theaters, I liked it but that it went by too fast. I remember thinking, “As soon as the story got going, it ended.” Revisiting the movie on this DVD, though, I didn’t have the same experience. Instead, I was drawn into all the action on screen. If your initial reaction to the movie is “That was it?” then try a second viewing.
This movie is worth seeing simply because it’s something new. If you’re someone who gets frustrated every time an old TV show or forgotten classic gets the remake treatment, grousing about how Hollywood has run out of ideas, then give 9 a try.